I was still groggy when the alarm went off. Oliver's computer chugged away, identifying the car which was coming down Route 82.
The computer clicked, was satisfied. Standard police cruiser, New York State Trooper. I relaxed. Probably Hilary.
The CB's light switched on, and I picked up the mike. "I hear you," I said. "This is Justin Bialy. Are you all right?"
Hilary's voice boomed over the tiny speaker, somehow. "Hey, Justin. This is Hilary. Mind if I pull in?"
"Always welcome," I lied, "let me open the gate for you."
I flipped the four switches on the bunker's control panel, shutting down ,the
base's automatic defenses, and walked outside. I told Julia to get under
cover, announced our guest, and unlocked the manual security on the main gate. Shortly thereafter, Hilary drove in.
It's different in other parts of the country, but New York has strict rules about vehicular armament. Even police cruisers can't mount them except in the event of a real emergency. The only people with vehicle-mounted weapons in the state were the National Guard FAV units.
Nothing wrong with armor, though. Hilary's police cruiser was solid as a rock and mounted a ramplate - it looked like it
could drive through the brick wall surrounding our property. He walked out of the car with a grin.
Hilary stood about six-nine and had one of those grins that made small children
scream. He looked tougher than his car, and probably was. He was wearing his .45 but left his Uzi in the car. Things are kind of peaceful here in Dutchess County.
He gave me a clap on the shoulder which probably would shatter vehicular armor and a genuine smile. "Nice to have you back in town, Justin," he said. "When did you come back?"
"Just last night. A friend was running up to Buffalo and he had an empty seat."
"Were you on 55 at about 11?"
"I was dozing at the time. I guess so."
"There was a firefight. Eight people killed." I looked shocked. "That's terrible!"
He shrugged. "Just punks running a tollbooth." He took the coffee Hope gave him with a thank-you. "Damn messy."
"Sorry, this is the first I've heard about it," I said truthfully. "Sounds like something that would happen in Texas or Illinois, but not here."
"Maybe your friend heard about it."
"Probably not," I said. "He would have mentioned it this morning."
"Well, maybe I should ask him."
That was nothing but a politely-posed command. "He's not here." "What's his name?" he asked, taking out his pad.
I hesitated. "To tell you the truth," I lied, "he's a duellist going to the AADA meet in Buffalo. He couldn't afford to have his car transported, so he had to run his Division 25 Tigershark up from Florida himself."
Hilary chuckled. He didn't really care about vehicular-weapons violations; only armed gangs got him angry. "So much for that, then," he said. "Could you write him and ask him about it?"
I promised, and started walking him back to his car. "Lots of ripped-up
asphalt," he said meditatively. I took the empty cup. "There's some heavy
equipment out there. If anything happens, give me a call."
I thanked him and opened the gate for him. He drove off. I shrugged to myself and walked over to the football field: I wanted to fly a few model rockets while the wind was down and the weather so warm.
Jeremiah fell into step with me. "What did he say?" he asked.
I considered. "He says that your bomb warheads work beautifully. Thunderhawk is fully operational?" He nodded. "Good. Let's get to cases. Who killed me?"
There are times I believe that Jeremiah is the least-dispensable member of our group. He brews up the ammo for our flamethrowers, keeps the lasers in operation, and makes the warheads for the rockets and bombs Osmund and I build. He also converted a hangar to a hothouse where he grows coffee. He and Alexandra run our own little version of Gold Cross. The last thing I remembered was joking with Julia before getting plugged into the computer Jeremiah repaired and Miles programmed.
Jeremiah shrugged. "We don't know. You went on a trip somewhere and we hadn't heard from you for a month. So we activated - so we brought you back."
I sighed. "Do you think those greedy gentlemen with the log and no antiaircraft had anything to do with it?"
"We have no reason to," he said, as carefully precise as if he was talking to a computer.
"What day is this?"
"Fourteen April 2034."
"The last thing I remember is 26 February. And I left about 13 March?"
"Right after dinner."
"Hmm. I know that I wanted to take a trip down to the Museum of Natural History -"
"You did," he said gently. "With Elijah and Julia on the eighth."
"With Elijah and Julia? Damned good idea." I paused, looked at his confused face. "They're the only two of us with any real military experience."
Jeremiah smiled wryly. "An Air National Guard helicopter pilot who thinks that anything without rotor blades is effeminate, and a deserter from Commonwealth Squadron's Off-Road service."
"At least she brought her wheels with her. " I had met her in Toronto during the Doctor Who 70th Anniversary Con. When the revolution in Britain broke out, she stole her Tribune trike and fled the Brit garrison in Ottawa. I was the only person she knew south of the 48th parallel. "Which reminds me. Did you remove those Vulcans?"
He nodded. "She wasn't thrilled about that, but there's no way we can keep them in ammo."
Jeremiah had a curious view of science and sciences: He saw little distinction between biology and chemistry and chemistry and physics. He was a special mind who could mix a batch of high explosive as easily as he could keep our clones alive. Or animate them. That gave me a strange feeling.
"Has much happened while I was away?" I asked.
He flinched. "Not really. We sort of pulled in our horns, tried to relax.
. . the news media's onto us. They found out there's one group behind all the
vigilante vehicle assaults in a five-county area. They're calling us Nightsword."
"Nightsword. Well, it beat Dutchess County Autoduel, Clam Chowder, Monty Python, and Vigilante Club." I picked up a grenade-sized rock and threw it; it bounced off one of the remote flamethrower and rocket launcher bunkers.
"Good throw," he congratulated.
I pointed. "I was aiming at that one."
"Doesn't matter much with grenades." He hesitated. "There's something I want to tell you."
"You may not like it," he said.
"In that case, I insist that you tell me."
He looked at me again, looked at the recently-planted potato field. "The data recordings used by Gold Cross are twenty percent larger than the ones we're using." He looked away. "I don't know if you're legally Justin Bialy."
"Shoddy product. You'll have to start calling yourself Brass Cross." I
laughed. "Maybe Justin was more fun to be with."
"No. I've had a very nasty shock and I want to be indulged. The last thing I remember is lying down to get my brains
sucked. Maybe you didn't suck quite enough. But I think I'm Justin."
"Do you have doubts?"
He sighed. "Look, Justin was a good friend of mine. You act the way he does. Or did. I think you're him. I'm about as certain of that as I can be certain about anybody's identity. But there is that twenty percent. Probably redundancy or a less efficient storage. I'm sorry I mentioned it."
I threw another rock, missed again. The wind was starting to kick up - not a good day to fly a rocket.
"How's the hardware?"
"Thunderhawk is ready for anything you want her to do. Julia's Tribune has been re-fitted with rocket launchers. If this were an army, I'd give you a snappy salute and say 'All systems go, Captain Kirk!'"
"Any major cycle gangs move in recently? Aside from the toll-booth jobbers in scum heaven?"
To my astonishment he said, "Yes. The Steal Machine from Pennsylvania. About fifty strong. They were burned roughly a year ago by a duellist group -"
"In Allentown. I remember. What about the Guard?"
Jeremiah shrugged. "They've run through their equipment budget for this year. The emergency bond's being filibustered in the state legislature."
"Those sons-of -" I started before I realized that I didn't know who I should be swearing at. Like most people living in upstate New York, I decided to blame the Big Apple. Plenty of money for the City's aid to unwed roaches." Jeremiah was silent, a sure sign that I was making a fool of myself.
After lunch, I stood up. It isn't often that' all ten of us eat at the same time. It only happens when everyone decides to have a meeting afterwards. I never will figure out why I'm always the first to talk - I'm not "commander" of our group. We don't even have a president. But for some reason, I behave like one, and for some other reason, nobody's knocked me out for it yet.
"It's nice to be back," I said. "For the next few days I'll be trying to figure out what has or hasn't been done since February. First of all, I want to check out the Steal Machine, Scout the county with Thunderhawk tonight, gather intelligence so we can try to pacify them to death."
There was a slight stir.
"I know that we've never tried anything that big before. But we might be able to catch them with their pants down, especially if O'Sea isn't expecting anyone with our keen toys."
Smiles and giggles all around.
"Try to bear with me, and accept my apologies for any offense I might give." A little stiff; lighten it up. "For all I know, anything could have happened -"
I think I was the only one surprised when Julia burst into tears and ran out of the room.
Nobody moved after her. They watched me expectantly. If I had said something pompous like, "Dismissed," they would resent me. But that was exactly what they expected.
"Any suggestions?" I asked, more brusquely than I intended. There were none. "Elijah? I'd like to go over Thunderhawk with you,"
I barely looked at the damned helicopter. It was a mint-condition HK-17 Hunter/Killer Rotary Aircraft. I knew all about them.
"Well, Elijah, old flyboy," I said, strained, "what the hell happened to Julia?"
He looked at me, his glasses making him look hostile. At least, I hoped it was his glasses. "You married her on March eighth."
Married? My reaction was pure incredulity. I felt more genuine warmth for Jeremiah than for Julia. Then I remembered that I was missing a lot of days.
"At the wedding you told her that you had always loved her," he said, almost to himself and pretending to inspect the starboard MFR.
That was a damned lie, Elijah. Unless I had lost something with that 20 percent. But I said, "I did. I'm surprised I got up enough nerve to ask her."
He laughed. "She asked you."
"In that case, I believe it. " The hell I did. Married. "I want Miles to come with us as electronics operator," he said, changing the subject. "You'll be gunner, I hope.'
"Wild horses couldn't keep me away from that cyberlink. You tell Miles, okay? I have to talk to my - Julia."
He nodded sympathetically as I left. If only you knew what was bothering me. You'd break my neck, you good, decent man.
She was lying down on my bed. Our bed. This was our room, now. I
picked up something on the nightstand. It was a small disk containing a
hologram of the projector at the Hayden Planetarium. One of us had bought it at the Museum on our trip with Elijah. I wondered if we had enjoyed ourselves as much as I had hoped.
"Julia," I said. "I'm sorry. I never wanted to hurt you like that. Please forgive me."
I wasn't sorry for anything I had done, but I was sorry that she was unhappy. Pity there was no way to say that.
She got up and hugged me. "It's so good to have you back," she said. "Let's get married again."
"Soon. After O'Sea bites the big one."
We talked for an hour, she told me that Oliver and Hope were an Item and that Elijah felt that Thunderhawk would render
everyone else useless. I told her that everyone would go on tonight's probe mission in case things got nasty. I didn't mention that with stealth mode and a
black paint job that Thunderhawk would not be spotted. I just wanted everyone out and driving and sweating. I wanted Elijah to give a thankful prayer for the
four cars, the van, and the trike which would be under us tonight. We talked for
an hour and I never lied to her. I never told her that I loved her or wanted to
marry her. It was only giri to me.
Julia's Tribune was quietly humming, ready to go. The other five vehicles were all painted black and were waiting, silent. Each was flying new colors put on this afternoon: a bastard sword, point down, over which was a scroll that read NIGHTSWORD.
Thunderhawk's rotors kicked up and we left her pad. The other vehicles silently followed her, like cats with rubber-crepe feet. No headlights - not when each vehicle carried full infrared. The Tribune peeled off from the pack and took to the open fields.
Nobody knows why the satellite defense system slipped and let the Soviets hit poughkeepsie with a twenty-K airburst. Only a few spots in the whole country were hit - Hudson Valley was a target for megatons. Like Hiroshima, the bomb did comparatively little damage but did encourage mass emigration. Poughkeepsie was a ghost town that glowed a little. O'Sea would be somewhere in the area.
We were about two miles from the Marist campus, stealth mode on, violating the FAA rules about navigation lights, when Miles spoke up.
"Radar has just hit us," he said. "It's locked on. We're spotted."
"Guard radar?" I asked.
"Negative. Coming from Marist." "Steal Machine?"
Make a decision fast, worry later about its being correct. "All units," I said over the comm center. "We're attacking Marist College. Now. I know this is unexpected, but they've got radar." Thunderhawk's engine exploded with noise: we jerked forward. Elijah smelled blood.
The McCann Recreation Center was under us when Miles spoke again. "Radar-guided missile launched," he said flatly. "Coming in."
The dual belly lasers in the turret swiveled forward. I could see the launch site, inside a cloud of smoke. I activated the cyberlink and saw static.
"There's a Wild Weasel down there," I said, trying to keep calm. Miles nodded and broke the jam with Thunderhawk's EW gear. The missile filled my sights. I think both lasers hit it.
There was a flare deep in the IR spectrum from the top of Champagnat Hall. The star- shell turned night to day. With a mumbled curse, Elijah fired the left-hand MFR - I think one rocket hit the launcher and the others' blast sent five 'steal Machiners down. A tripod-mount M-60 flipped off the side of the roof and fell ten stories. .
Another missile was launched. It was from the Champagnat parking lot, in our path. "Bombing run," I said.
Five heavy vehicles smashed through a log covering the South Entry. Jeremiah set off the AP grenades which dotted the sides of the van he was in. Machinists carrying shotguns and grenades crashed to the floor and never got up.
The missile veered off; Miles had scrambled it. I dropped two pairs of bombs - at 300 feet and 50 mph, they'd hit the general area of the smokescreen shortly. We veered off and laser scored our flank, but the beams had their own smokescreen and the hit was barely noticed.
Alexandra in her modified Katana had found a long line of bikes. She was chugging past them at 20 mph, Heavy Flaming Oil Je pumping away. She sent a few rockets through the smoke to impact on Champagnat Hall; suddenly people started swarming out and it collapsed like a sick balloon.
The bombs struck around the smokescreen in the Champagnat parking lot. Bikes with universal rockets and lasers and their crews were chopped to pieces.
The Tribune bounced out of the brush and headed towards a barricade. The dual rocket launchers opened up. The barricade didn't fall, but Machinists trying to ready LAWs did. As the buggy bounced over the barricade, two grenades arced from its sides. As Julia went under the railroad bridge, they went off.
Osmund flipped a cigar butt out the window of his National Guard Special and punched it. The mid-size responded sluggishly as he pointed its nose at the smokescreen in the parking lot. He salvoed a few rockets at it to soften the side armor of whatever was inside. He hit the van slightly off-center and drove off with several thousand dollars of electronics on his ramplate; the van would not move again.
"The Wild Weasel's shut down," said Miles as Lorenzo's Interceptor sent Donnely Hall crashing on someone with a tripod RR. I decided to give Miles the "Understatement of the Year" award. That antiaircraft van was totaled.
The status board indicated that none of our people had reported contact with the enemy for a few seconds. I saw no hostiles mobile, no-
A bus exploded through the chapel and roared towards the North Exit. Oliver and
Jeremiah were in its way. I watched, stunned, as the bus hit them and thundered out to Route 9.
"We're okay," Oliver said before the van stopped rolling. Thunderhawk whipped towards its new target. The starboard MFR lanced out and missed.
"Don't fire on it!" Miles yelled. And then, calmly, "There's six people aboard;
three look like they're tied up." I didn't know Thunderhawk carried a
thermograph. Live and learn.
Our side boiled towards the north entrance.
The bus was picking up speed. I made an unpopular decision.
"Ground units. Follow at a discreet range, about a quarter of a mile." Tribune could close easily by taking an off-road shortcut, but I didn't think it would be much help.
A laser on the top front traversed and fired at us. Our armor barely felt the occasional hits. We were about 350 feet up, 200 feet behind them. "Jam their computers," I said, barely thinking. They stopped hitting us.
There was no way they could get away from us. The driver was wasting his time, risking himself stupidly by going 100. I suppose he thought that we needed to use the cars to smash him. The bus loomed in my sights - thirty or forty patient shots would rip him apart. It was the smart thing to do, and besides, we had no real proof that the three in the back were prisoners.
So I'm stupid. "Elijah, we're going to board him. " I started firing the lasers on minimum power, hoping to blowout any theoretical AP grenades on the bus.
Thunderhawk drew closer to the bus, reluctantly. I continued to fire. Their
laser was starting to hit us, and I noticed that the bus had a bigger turret
mounted in back. It tracked us but didn't fire. Elijah expressed his opinion that they were recoilless rifles. I expressed mine that he should shut up, but I 'suppose I should have been grateful that he didn't activate my ejection seat and fly off.
We were getting very close to the bus now. And Elijah was bringing us in fast. Incredible how the trees were gone before you noticed them. Incredible that Thunderhawk could fly twice as fast as this. Incredible how the thought of power lines came to us all at the same time.
The bus was starting to shoot at our main rotor. "When Miles and I jump off, get the hell out of here," I said. "Pull back to a quarter mile. If we buy it, use you best judgement." Which meant blitzkrieg, I thought.
I had an Uzi, my .357, and two grenades. Miles had no pistol but an extra grenade. We both wore armor and masks and radios with our helmets. Nobody could have been better equipped than us. Thunderhawk shook like a mad thing when the door was opened, and I suddenly realized there was no way we were going to close it at 100 mph. We dropped down, grabbed at the laser-burned ruts in the roof. Thuderhawk swerved to the right, making it impossible to fire through its open door.
The laser turret traversed, following the helicopter. I was damn near on it, so I stuffed the barrel of my Uzi into the slot and rattled off shots long after I realized the thing was dead. Flat on our stomachs, we waited. Hoped that O'Sea wouldn't decide to roll his toy.
A hatch was being opened behind us. We both snapped around faster than I believed possible. I sent a bullet through his neck, and Miles, always more subtle than me, rolled the grenade. It bounced down the length of the bus, picking up speed. It vanished inside the hatch.
There was a soft puff as the teargas went off. We crawled towards the hatch. I went down the ladder head first.
"Thunderhawk to Nightsword Leader," came Elijah's strained voice in my earplugs.
"You're about to go off the road -"
Someone grabbed me from behind; I stomped down hard, armored boot on open toed sandals. I stepped to the side, and rammed the butt of my Uzi deep into a yielding abdomen. She fell backwards, and must have been gasping although I couldn't see her face under her gasmask. Miles opened up with his sub- machine gun and she stopped moving. I ran forward, to try to get control of the bus, when it abruptly lurched and I knew I was too late.
The bus flipped sideways and rolled into the forest, cushioned by saplings. A fire broke out and chemical foam covered the floor.
O'Sea had no gasmask; tears ran from his eyes to the top of his scalp. He was strapped into the driver's chair, and the bus was on its side. I raised the magnum and put a round through the back of his head.
Miles was back with the three prisoners. "Justin," he said, too quietly. "Come here." I went back, knowing. Why does God do these things? Justin Bialy was one of the prisoners. Alive and well.
The girl who attacked me was still alive, intestines torn by Miles' 9 mm. She was gasping air, in too much pain to see me as I put the .357 to her head. And put it away, unfired.
Times like this I really think I should have picked some other line of work.
* * *
The other two prisoners were dropped off in Millbrook and knew only that they had been saved by a group calling itself Nightsword. An armed and dangerous group. It was a really beautiful day. I'm only talking about the weather, you understand.
"I'll leave tonight," I said.
Justin shook his head. "We need you. There's no reason we can't work together."
The wind shifted, and seeds from a distant Weeping Willow drifted around. I shook my head in exactly the same way as Justin.
"I don't think so," I said. "I don't want to be known as Justin Junior or Justin Mark II. I can't be myself around you. You know you'd make the same decision."
He was silent. "Why are you volunteering to go?" he asked.
"Julia married you, not me." I didn't love her, I told myself. Why did spitting it out hurt so bad?
"The Interceptor is very discreetly armed, " I continued. "I'll take it, a few personal things, and go."
"Yeah. I've never been there." I got up, walked over to the parking lot. "Really no reason to draw this out. I'll write you. Don't tell them I said goodbye. It's not as though they'll be without me. I'll be without them."
"I promise," he lied. I think he lied; I know I would have. I didn't care. I just wanted to leave without seeing Julia.
"Justin," he said as I opened the Interceptor's door. I paused. "Julia married me," he said. "But Elijah called you 'Nightsword Leader.'"
I couldn't talk - I just smiled. I floored the accelerator and the
thudded to the opening gate. One of the hangars behind me opened up. The others were running to try to catch up with me. They really did love me. I tore my eyes
from the rear-view - Julia was coming out and I knew that 20 percent didn't count for much.